It’s trash culture time. I’ve always been fond of the number 13 because daft people think it’s unlucky. Enough said.
The big feature this week is a review of Lords of Waterdeep. I like the game a lot, particularly the way in which the designers seem to have quite deliberately research all the common grievances with the genre and set out to improve them all. And with the partial exception of the theme, they’ve largely succeeded. It’s still a Euro and it’s still occasionally dry and dull but for the most part it’s a pleasing marriage of good strategy without seeming like hard work, direct interaction without unbalancing the game, and plenty of variety to make sure it’s different every play. As a bonus it’s very simple to learn and plays in around an hour although there’s a lot of stuff to track and I’m not sure it’s all that suitable for wider family play. Probably my favourite worker placement game ever, although given that I struggled to find three that I’d even bother to play, that’s not saying much.
TV & Film
Having loved the Batman reboot films and Inception, I’ve made it a personal mission to watch all of Christopher Nolan’s films. Most recently I’ve acquired and watched cop thriller Insomnia, a star-studded tale of pleasingly murky morality, in which your sympathies twist and turn around protagonist, villain and supporting cast before finally vindicating an unusual and unexpected character. Exploring the dark line between what’s lawful and what’s just with smart, deft fingers I enjoyed it a lot, particularly Al Pacino’s turn as the sleep-deprived homicide detective of the title. I don’t watch enough films like this: things with swords, guns and horrible monsters always sound so much more exciting but so rarely deliver.
I was also rather irritated by the closing episodes of season 2 of A Game of Thrones. I couldn’t get a handle on some of what was going on, and other aspects of plot or characters seemed implausible and unrealistic. It sounds as though much of this is the fault of the screenwriters trying to shoehorn important plot points into the TV adaptation. Now I’m all for alterations between page and screen. Indeed they’re essential - not only are they two completely different mediums requiring different techniques for success, but the transition allows skilled directors the chance to put their own artistic stamp on the material, giving new interpretations and angles to those who consume both book and film. But there’s no excuse at all for changing things and ending up with dumb, stupid plot points. I’m reminded of the plot train-wreck at the end of The Two Towers film which continues to stand out like a sore thumb in Peter Jackson’s otherwise masterful re-working of Tolkien's opus. Now I’m torn between being less interested in season 3 of A Game of Thrones, still not really wanting to bother with the books, but wanting to know what happens next.
Been reading international bestseller The Kite Runner after it was recommended to me by both my wife and some work colleagues. And although it’s certainly a good book and a worthwhile read, I thought it was distinctly average. The very best thing about it, as a book written about Afghanistan by a native Afghan, is the effortless manner in which it communicates intimate details about another place and culture and thereby elevates the tragedy of the ongoing wars there. It’s also got an unusual plot, and the author has a clever knack of painting exceptionally visual images with relatively minimalist prose. But as mistake and tragedy piled on the back of mistake and tragedy as the book progressed, I began to become rather desensitized to all the horror. Really, it has all the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the trick of adding another misfortune to the plot just when you figured everything had settled down gets old, fast.
After failing to engage with Bioshock, I was struck by the fact that the problem was with me and not the game. I haven’t enjoyed an FPS since I played the Brothers in Arms games, my favourite video games of all time. So I got Gears of War after reading it was vaguely tactical. And it is. It’s superb. I hadn’t had that “just another five minutes” feeling from any of the games on my 360 and I was starting to think I’d grown out of it, but here I am, bleary-eyed and coffee-fueled all week after late night sessions gunning down the Locust. It’s got that blend of speed, strategy and story that marks all my favourite video games, with save checkpoints separating what are effectively well-designed tactica set pieces where you’re challenged to work out the best way to run from cover to cover and take out the enemy. I also love the way your AI squadmates are used to help drive the story, and the war-torn urban environments in which the game is set. I realise it’s old hat to many of you, but to me it feels fresh and brilliant. Also, am I the only person convinced they borrowed the design of the Wretch direct from Space Hulk genestealers?
My central focus this week has been on the spaced-out art rock of related bands Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. I first heard Spacemen 3’s magnum opus The Perfect Prescription, a concept album written to mirror the high and lows of a drug trip, shortly after release in 1987 and hated it. But I decided to give it one more spin, and second time around it began to open up like a flower. Melodically very simple, with basic chord switches, it manages to nevertheless create a highly unusual and deeply hypnotic soundscape by adding orchestral, folk and gospel undertones to the basic guitar structures and intriguingly poetic lyrics over the top. It’s a beautiful, striking thing that’s been a regular fixture on my playlists ever since.
But there was tension at the heart of the band, which became more pronounced through the following two albums until by Recurring, their final release, the two sides were written and produced by the two central members of the band and sounded strikingly different. They split afterwards and one of those two people, Jason Pierce, went on to found Spiritualized which moved away from the minimalist acoustic focus of Spacemen 3 and instead threw pretty much the kitchen sink of musical tricks into creating a similarly blissed-out effect. Their favourite album of mine is Lazer Guided Melodies, which would probably make my top ten albums of all time with its lush orchestral and electronic effects, sweeping chords and soaring melodies. From that point, the band slowly moved on toward a more stripped down, harsher sound that proved popular with a lot of fans and rock critics, but doesn’t really work for me, although their second and third albums are worth a spin. I saw Spiritualized live once: they were recording their second album in a studio in the city I lived in and decided to play an impromptu show, and it happened to be my 22nd birthday. It's the only rock concert I've ever been to where everyone sat down and it was amazing. A friend of mine worked behind the bar at the venue they played and he got me a signed poster as a birthday present.
Neither band is particularly well known but are feted by critics and Spacemen 3 in particular are cited as an influence by a number of popular modern bands such as Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine. There’s plenty of Spiritualized on Spotify if you look, but sadly no Spacemen 3. So I’ll leave you with the high point of their best album, Walking With Jesus, as a taster.